Five Careers in Environmental Health

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A health and safety engineer works with data on a tablet in a factory.Over 10 million people die from air pollution alone each year, according to a recent study published in Environmental Research. Environmental health professionals confront pollution and other environmental hazards that endanger lives and affect our planet.

In the face of global warming, infectious disease outbreaks, and heightened concerns over environmental issues, the world relies on environmental health experts more than ever. By mitigating the impact of hazards, preventing exposure, and developing and enforcing laws and regulations, environmental health professionals safeguard human health and the environment.

Those inspired by these opportunities can choose from many careers in environmental health

1. Public Health Engineer

Public health engineers create systems, tools, and strategies that address public health problems. They usually work for government agencies, such as public health departments or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Their work involves keeping government officials, businesses, and the public aware of safety measures and health concerns.

They also use their expertise to improve the sanitation of facilities such as hospitals and restaurants. Public health engineers analyze health risks and investigate ways to address them. Then, they communicate their findings to the government and help educate the public.

Responsibilities of Public Health Engineers

Public health engineers typically perform a number of duties involving:

Sanitation Code Compliance

Buildings must conform to a series of standards related to sanitation, drainage, and water supply, which help protect the community and environment from exposure to unsafe water, sewage, etc. Public health engineers review construction plans and assess their compliance with sanitation codes. They may then make recommendations about how to address any problems they see.

Facility Inspections

Public health engineers inspect facilities, such as manufacturing sites, and systems, such as municipal water supply systems, to make sure they meet health and environmental codes. This may involve performing various tests that check for the release of harmful contaminants into nearby soil, air, or water.

Based on their findings, public health engineers prepare detailed technical reports. They may also inspect and report on restaurants and public swimming pools.

Water Management System Design

Healthy communities rely on well-planned water and wastewater systems. Public health engineers design systems that collect, purify, and distribute safe water to communities. They also develop techniques to conserve and reuse water.

Concerning wastewater, public health engineers design the network of pipes and pumping systems that treat domestic and storm sewage. This helps prevent pollution and the spread of diseases.

Required Education and Skills for Public Health Engineers

Public health engineers need at least a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering with a specialization in public health or another engineering discipline such as electrical or systems engineering. Though not necessary for entry-level positions, advanced positions involving the approval of engineering designs or calculations require public health engineers to obtain a professional engineering license.

Licensure requires at least four years of post-college work experience under the supervision of a certified engineer in one’s chosen engineering discipline — in this case, public health or environmental engineering. Public health engineers must also pass an exam administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying to earn their license.

Many public health engineering positions also require candidates to earn a master’s degree in environmental engineering with a specialization in public health. This advanced education builds expertise in specialty areas such as hazardous waste science, which can help public health engineers progress in their careers.

A Master of Public Health degree can also prove useful to professionals in the field, as it can sharpen expertise in the design of systems that safeguard the public from disease and injury.

In addition, a public health engineer’s success depends on the cultivation of several competencies, including:

Communication Skills

Public health engineers must interpret and clearly communicate governmental regulations and codes to complete inspections and write reports. They also must explain technical concepts to government officials and help advise the public about health risks. These tasks all require strong verbal and written abilities.

Problem-Solving Skills

Developing engineering designs for water distribution or finding ways to improve building sanitation often requires troubleshooting and solving complicated problems. Public health engineers must also think critically when assessing construction plans and conducting inspections to effectively identify potential health risks.

Observational Skills

Public health engineers need to evaluate various types of systems to ensure their safety. This requires close observation of the various system parts to determine their compliance with the different health and sanitation regulations and codes.

Public Health Engineer Salary and Job Outlook

Public health engineers, classified under the umbrella of health and safety engineers, earned a median annual salary of $94,240 as of May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Top earners made as much as $144,800 a year. Geographic location, years of experience, and industry can affect how much a public health engineer makes.

BLS data indicates a 6% job growth for public health engineers between 2020 and 2030, in keeping with the average growth rate among occupations.

2. Environmental Health Technician

Environmental health technicians identify environmental health issues by investigating pollution sources. Several sectors seek their services, including governmental agencies, laboratories, and consulting firms.

In state and local governments, environmental health technicians investigate potential issues with food safety, as well as air and water quality. This may involve conducting inspections of businesses and public places, such as parks or public swimming pools.

Environmental health technicians working in laboratories gather, monitor, and test samples related to the environment to determine how they affect people’s health. In a consulting firm, environmental health technicians help the firm’s clients comply with environmental regulations.

Responsibilities of Environmental Health Technicians

Often working under the direction of environmental scientists, environmental health technicians carry out various duties, including:

Collecting Environmental Samples

To identify environmental problems, environmental health technicians often collect various soil, water, air, and waste samples. They may collect these and other types of samples during routine inspections of facilities and public areas, or during an investigation in response to specific complaints. To ensure the integrity of samples, environmental health technicians carefully label and track them before sending them to laboratories for analysis.

For example, an environmental health technician may conduct observations of a public park to address reports of a rodent infestation. During the observations, the environmental health technician may gather waste samples, which can offer insights into the nature and extent of the rodent infestation.

Investigating Possible Violations of Environmental Regulations

Environmental health technicians may also investigate and assess health issues created by grocery stores, hotels, and other public establishments that violate environmental codes and regulations. This could involve inspecting pumps at a public swimming pool or inspecting garbage disposal practices at a trailer park to ensure the facility complies with environmental health rules.

Setting Up and Maintaining Equipment That Tracks Pollution

To monitor pollution levels and their sources, environmental health technicians set up instruments capable of measuring the release of contaminants into the environment. This may include remote sensing equipment that measures emission from smokestacks or devices that suck air into them to calculate traffic emissions.

Required Education and Skills for Environmental Health Technicians

Environmental health technicians typically need a bachelor’s degree in environmental health, public health, or a related field, such as biology. This gives them the background in the natural sciences needed to perform their work. It also gives them a chance to learn methods for gathering data and samples for analysis.

Since environmental health technicians regularly perform data analysis and modeling, they also benefit from completing coursework in statistics, computer science, and math.

The following skills help environmental health technicians succeed in their work:

Analytical Skills

Carrying out tests in laboratories and in the field with accuracy requires an ability to assess differences, see patterns, and come to conclusions. Environmental health technicians also need to have strong reasoning skills to figure out how to address environmental dangers.

Interpersonal Skills

Much of an environmental health technician’s work involves collaboration with other technicians as well as scientists. Therefore, they should be able to interact well in teams and listen to instructions and feedback. A failure to do so can result in mistakes that invalidate experiments or call into question the results of investigations.

Communication Skills

Environmental health technicians write reports that summarize the results of inspections and investigations. They also need to discuss their findings with clients and coworkers. To do so, environmental health technicians should have strong written and verbal communication skills.

Environmental Health Technician Salary and Job Outlook

According to BLS data, environmental health technicians earned a median annual salary of $53,340 as of May 2020. The highest earners most frequently work in the construction industry. Depending on geographic location and years of experience, among other factors, environmental health technicians can make upward of $89,780 a year.

The BLS projects a 9% job growth in the field between 2020 and 2030. This exceeds the average projected growth rate of 8%.

3. Environmental Health and Safety Specialist

Environmental health and safety specialists play a vital role in keeping workplaces safe and ensuring organizations adhere to regulations that protect employee health and the environment. Organizations across many industries, particularly those in manufacturing and construction, rely on the expertise of these professionals to help them manage their health and safety policies and procedures.

A large portion of environmental health and safety specialists also work for federal government agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as for local and state governments.

Responsibilities of Environmental Health and Safety Specialists

Generally speaking, the work of environmental health and safety specialists involves gathering and then analyzing data about occupational environments and practices. More specifically, job responsibilities for those in the field include:

Inspecting Work Environments

Environmental health and safety specialists conduct a range of inspections of work environments, checking for general safety, the presence of necessary safety equipment, such as emergency eyewash or fire extinguishers, and the proper storage of hazardous materials, among other things.

Inspections involve on-site walkthroughs in which environmental health and safety specialists look for potential hazards to workers, as well as conditions that can violate environmental regulations. For example, improper ventilation or poor lighting can present risks to workers and violate policies set up to ensure safe occupational environments.

Developing Safe Work Procedures and Processes

Based on inspections and reviews of an organization’s occupational and environmental safety program, environmental health and safety specialists develop work procedures and processes that protect workers and the environment. This may involve modifying workstations to limit exposure to potentially dangerous equipment or creating safety protocols for operating machinery.

Investigating Safety Incidents

Workplace incidents that cause injury to employees and the environment can occur. They include everything from a simple slip and fall accident to a serious chemical spill. Environmental health and safety specialists investigate these incidents to determine why they occurred and how to prevent them from occurring again.

This may involve checking to see if improper or insufficient training led to the incident. It may also involve examining safety measures to determine if they failed or were missing in the first place.

Required Education and Skills for Environmental Health and Safety Specialists

Environmental health and safety specialists need at least a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety, environmental health, or a field such as engineering, biology, or chemistry. Such a degree builds foundational scientific knowledge important for completing job tasks.

Many employers seek candidates with advanced degrees, such as a master’s degree in public health or industrial hygiene, to ensure those they hire have a developed understanding of occupational safety and environmental health management.

Additionally, environmental health and safety specialists can become more competitive in the job market if they get a professional certification. Both the Board of Certified Safety Professionals and the American Board of Industrial Hygiene offer certifications, such as Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and Certified Industrial Hygienist.

Each has its own educational and work experience requirements. Certifications also require individuals to pass competency exams.

Environmental health and safety specialists need to cultivate skills that will build their capacity to effectively accomplish work responsibilities. Areas to consider include:

Facility with Technology

During inspections and investigations, environmental health and safety specialists often use complex technology to test air quality, machinery, etc. For example, they may need to use a geographical information system (GIS) to assess sites that require extensive data gathering.

Problem-Solving Skills

Environmental health and safety specialists need to think creatively about how to address specific environmental and occupational risks and fix existing problems. Designing procedures and processes in the workplace that safeguard the environment and workers also requires the ability to identify and prioritize safety issues and come up with viable alternatives.

Attention to Detail

Locating hazards and potential safety risks requires attention to detail. Additionally, to make sure organizations fully adhere to government regulations, environmental health and safety specialists must apply close observational skills and conduct thorough inspections.

Environmental Health and Safety Specialist Salary and Job Outlook

Environmental health and safety specialists earned a median annual income of $76,340 as of May 2020, according to the BLS. Top earners made as much as $112,850 annually. Those working in the manufacturing industry or in hospitals tend to make the most money.

Environmental health and safety specialists can expect steady growth in the coming years. The BLS projects positions in the field to grow 7% between 2020 and 2030, on par with the average growth rate.

4. Health and Safety Engineer

Those searching for careers in environmental health may also consider pursuing a position in health and safety engineering. Using their knowledge of environmental health and safety and engineering, these engineers ensure machinery, chemicals, and other potential hazards do not harm people or damage property. They also assist organizations in industrial settings to comply with environmental laws.

Health and safety engineers work primarily in manufacturing, construction, consulting firms, and government. In addition to addressing health and safety standards for workers, they also help organizations limit or eliminate their environmental impact.

Responsibilities of Health and Safety Engineers

Health and safety engineers perform various tasks to identify and fix environmental hazards in the workplace, as well as improve adherence to governmental regulations. Typical duties include:

Developing Safety Policies and Plans

Safety policies and plans set up guardrails that minimize occupational and environmental risks, such as worker injuries or the release of toxins into waterways. Health and safety engineers devise procedures that prevent worker accidents and environmental incidents.

This might involve installing safety devices on machinery or developing measures that remove hazards, change unsafe work practices, or provide workers with protective equipment, such as ventilation masks, etc. Additionally, they set up protocols that help organizations avoid regulatory violations.

Performing Safety Audits

Safety audits help identify potential hazards that could cause accidents. They also involve the examination of current safety controls to determine their effectiveness. Health and safety engineers lead these audits. When doing so, they carefully review safety programs and specifications for equipment to ensure they comply with safety regulations. They may also conduct tests to assess whether safety protocols are working.

Overseeing Safety Training

By law, organizations must conduct safety training according to their industry. Health and safety engineers frequently oversee this required training, educating employees about health and safety regulations, use of personal protective gear, reporting hazards, and more.

Required Education and Skills for Health and Safety Engineers

Health and safety engineers need at least a bachelor’s degree in environmental health or an engineering field such as electrical, systems, or industrial engineering. Such a degree can provide foundational knowledge of principles related to water and air quality, health threats, and hazardous wastes.

However, to progress past entry-level positions, health and safety engineers need practical experience in the field. They often need a master’s degree in public health or environmental health as well. This degree can help develop a deeper knowledge of environmental safety and may advance one’s ability to develop effective safety programs and policies that protect human health.

Skills key to success in this position include:

Technical Skills

To develop safety plans that effectively protect workers, health and safety engineers need extensive knowledge of electrical safety and safeguards on machinery that protect workers from rotating parts, flying debris, etc. They also need a strong working knowledge of industrial processes.

Additionally, to conduct audits and investigate safety incidents, they should know how to use tools such as air pollutant samplers and dynamometers that measure the rotational speed and torque of engines. Familiarity with scientific software, such as computational fluid dynamics software, can be helpful as well.

Analytical Skills

Assessing safety issues and the potential environmental impact of various processes requires careful analysis. Health and safety engineers also need keen critical thinking skills to effectively review safety controls and develop fixes for safety hazards. Identifying practices that can potentially lead to accidents calls for strong analytical skills as well.

Communication Skills

Safety and health engineers must effectively communicate safety procedures and compliance issues to workers. They also regularly write up reports and policies that must clearly convey information to workers, OSHA inspectors, and to their organizations’ leaders. Additionally, safety and health engineers need excellent communication skills to prepare and deliver effective training materials.

Health and Safety Engineer Salary and Job Outlook

As of May 2020, health and safety engineers earned a median annual salary of $94,240, according to the BLS. The top 10% in the field earned upward of $144,800 a year. Factors such as job location, years of experience, and education can all affect a person’s earnings.

BLS data indicates that between 2020 and 2030, health and safety engineers can expect slightly slower-than-average growth (6%) in their field.

5. Environmental Consultant

Environmental consultants leverage their knowledge of regulatory requirements and scientific knowledge to safeguard the health and safety of workers. They also help organizations minimize their legal risk for noncompliance with environmental laws and occupational health and safety codes.

Environmental consultants frequently work as independent consultants or in consulting firms hired by organizations seeking guidance in environmental health and safety. They may also work in-house.

Typically, environmental consultants help organizations determine their environmental impact, as well as measure the potential impact of various processes and activities. They may also assist organizations in implementing programs that lower their emissions and reduce their energy use, improving efficiency.

Responsibilities of Environmental Consultants

Organizations often look to environmental consultants for insight on environmental concerns related to construction, safety regulations, property development, energy efficiency, and more. Environmental consultants also help organizations deal with workplace incidents and maintain environmental compliance.

Their responsibilities include:

Conducting Environmental Assessments

To help organizations gauge the potential liabilities of a proposed project, environmental consultants conduct assessments that evaluate the possible environmental consequences of the plan, as well as those on the community. For example, environmental consultants may gather and analyze data about land a client wants to buy for commercial development.

This allows them to recommend how the land can be best used, as well as inform the client about the land’s baseline levels of pollution. Based on assessment findings, environmental consultants may suggest modifications that can limit adverse environmental effects, such as industrial runoff or disruption to an ecosystem. Environmental consultants use assessments to locate hazards that, if left unaddressed, could lead to fines or lawsuits.

Developing Environmental Compliance Programs

Environmental consultants help organizations develop strategies that strike a balance between meeting compliance requirements and realizing business goals. This involves routine auditing for workplace regulatory compliance, as well as safety and environmental compliance training. It may also include help with permit applications.

Additionally, this aspect of the role may involve providing guidance with remediation projects — the removal of contaminants from soil or water to restore an environment to its natural state.

Creating Programs to Improve Safety Performance

Environmental consultants help organizations develop programs that reduce occupational illnesses and injuries. This often involves implementing behavior-based safety initiatives that address unsafe work habits. Additionally, environmental consultants may guide job hazard assessments or analyses that identify job hazards followed by recommendations on which control measures to implement to lower risks.

Required Education and Skills for Environmental Consultants

Environmental consultants need at least a bachelor’s degree in environmental health, industrial hygiene, or occupational health and safety. Additionally, they need extensive environmental health and safety work experience in a specific industry, such as manufacturing or food production.

This experience allows them to develop the expertise required to guide and advise organizations in those industries. It also helps build an environmental consultant’s knowledge of industry-specific regulations.

By earning a Master of Public Health, environmental consultants can boost their credibility with clients. The degree delves into the interconnectedness of human health and the environment and trains graduates to effectively evaluate health programs. This gives environmental consultants great authority when advising organizations on how to manage remediation projects or reduce work-related illnesses.

Environmental consultants can also benefit from earning a master’s degree in environmental health, environmental science, or a related field. These advanced degrees cover scientific concepts key to conducting environmental assessments and prepare graduates with the technical knowledge to provide environmental consulting.

Recommended skills for environmental consultants include:

Investigative Skills

To identify occupational hazards and environmental risks, environmental consultants need to excel at locating relevant evidence and accurately appraising it. They also need to effectively gather information and interpret it to determine the causes of past environmental incidents, as well as arrive at accurate conclusions when completing environmental assessments.

Leadership Skills

Environmental consultants advise organizations on policies and programs. As such, they must inspire confidence, demonstrate their expertise, and establish strong relationships. Spearheading compliance and safety improvement programs also calls for someone with vision and the ability to motivate others into action.

Problem-Solving Skills

Solving environmental and safety problems requires creative thinking. To help clients develop programs that address hazards, improve safety, and address compliance issues, environmental consultants must innovate alternatives to old methods.

Environmental Consultant Salary and Job Outlook

Environmental consultants earn a median annual salary of around $65,100 according to PayScale data as of October 2021. Top earners brought in about $100,000 a year.

Although the BLS doesn’t provide data specific to environmental consultants, it projects that jobs in general business consulting will grow 14% between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the average job growth rate.

Choose the Right Environmental Health Career for You

Environmental health professionals play a key role in protecting public health and the environment. By helping organizations comply with regulations that safeguard human health, safety, and the planet, and by developing programs that prevent water, land, and air pollution, environmental health professionals protect what matters most.

Ohio University’s online Master of Public Health program offers courses that dive into the behavioral and environmental factors that affect human health. It also gives students the opportunity to participate in a capstone project in which they apply their classroom learning to the real world.

Explore how Ohio University’s online Master of Public Health program prepares graduates for a range of careers in environmental health.

Recommended Readings

Climate Change and Human Health: Statistics, Risks, and Resources

MPH vs. MHA: Discovering the Difference Between Two Degrees

What Are Determinants of Health? Behavioral, Environmental, and Social Factors of Public Health

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